Should you need a reminder about how unusual this upcoming NHL season is, commissioner Gary Bettman said explicitly during his season-opening press conference that there are reasons for it not to be played at all.
“It would be cheaper for us to shut the doors and not play,” Bettman told reporters Monday.
With significant business challenges that include buildings completely closed to fans in at least 28 cities, this is a grin-and-bear-it campaign. It will largely be a TV-only property starting Wednesday night and, while the realigned divisions hold great promise for those who love the game up here in particular, the league’s head office is bracing for a bumpy ride.
Games have already been rescheduled, just as they were in the other three big North American sports. Challenging situations are bound to arise with COVID-19 caseloads still spiking across the country. And the roughly 50 per cent of annual league-wide revenues that come from fans entering arenas will be reduced to a tiny fraction of that amount.
“There’s not a lot of money to be made at the numbers we’re talking about, both with respect to the number of teams who can permit fans in the building now and also the number of fans in the building,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
All told, a $5-billion industry stands to lose at least $2 billion over the course of an abbreviated 56-game season. Maybe more. In Bettman’s words: “The magnitude of the loss when you add it all up starts with a ‘B.’ We’re out of the ‘M’ range and into the ‘B’ range.”
“All of our teams have the ability to get through this,” he added. “We’ve made some financial arrangements that makes sure that cash flow is what it needs to be, although that’s not found money, that’s debt, and our clubs and our owners are having to write cheques.”
We live in challenging and honest times.
The most powerful men in the NHL made no attempt to sugarcoat the current situation during Monday’s hour-long Zoom session and really what good would that have accomplished anyway?
The league isn’t approaching these coming months any differently than you and I are individually. All it is trying to do is get through the pandemic as safely as possible while keeping the lights on for better days ahead.
“Let me make something really clear,” said Bettman. “We’re coming back to play this season because we think it’s important for the game, because our fans and our players want us to, and it may give people -- particularly those who are back in isolation or where there are curfews -- a sense of normalcy and something to do.”
They aren’t carved in stone. They’re not even written out in pen.
Given the uncertainty, there’s a general understanding that the league will have to be agile and open-minded.
So there’s isn’t a precise threshold for how many players below the typical 20-man roster a team would have to be missing in order to force the postponement of a game. Taxi squads of four to six players are being instituted to combat this issue, but it’s not likely to be eliminated completely during a compressed campaign played amid a pandemic.
“Obviously we don’t want situations where clubs are playing significantly short-handed,” said Daly. “Our clubs on a regular basis in the regular season, from year to year, will play short of 18 [skaters] and two [goaltenders] occasionally given circumstances. The primary difference and advantage that clubs will have this year is probably the taxi squad. …
“We think that creates an added element of flexibility that will allow our clubs to better navigate the situation in the COVID world. We’re really just making sure that we’re in the best situation possible, that our clubs are in the best situation possible, to adjust on the fly if they have to adjust so that we are not in a position where we lose a significant number of games.”
Even though the NHL built in an extra week after the regular season to accommodate postponements and cancellations, Bettman acknowledged that a team might end up not being able to get in its full schedule of games.
As for what happens in that potential circumstance, he couldn’t yet predict.
“We’re going to have to be in a position to understand and address situations as they occur,” said Bettman. “Having a series of just hard and fast rules in this environment I’m not sure is going to be -- actually I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be the best approach. I think for us, if we get confronted with a variety of situations that we wish hadn’t occurred, we want to be in the best situation at that time, not hypothetically, to deal with them.”
The Dallas Stars practice facility has been closed since Friday after six players and two staff members produced positive COVID-19 results. At minimum, the team’s first three regular-season games will be rescheduled.
However, it’s not yet clear when the Stars will resume skating and how soon they’ll be able to play their first game -- decisions that hinge entirely on the health of players and the safety of the situation.
“We’re still trying to get our arms around exactly how the spread occurred,” said Daly. “It has turned out to be kind of a classic outbreak and there may be a variety of factors associated with it. Having said that, we think we’re at the end.
“We hope we’re at the end of that outbreak and everybody is recovering nicely and being cared for and doing what they need to do to get healthy. We’ll play that through.”
When, or if, the San Jose Sharks can go home is also an open question.
There’s a meeting scheduled with government officials in Santa Clara County on that issue to be held Tuesday.
Without clearance to operate at home, the Sharks are conducting training camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., and they’re preparing for a regular season that starts with eight consecutive road games. That was a gift from NHL scheduler Steve Hatze Petros -- a little extra time to work through issues before their first designated home game arrives on Feb. 1.
But Daly said it’s not yet clear if that game will be played in San Jose or at a neutral site.
The additional revenue
Advertisements on helmets are debuting this season, but Bettman cautioned against categorizing those as new streams of revenue.
In most cases, those are about satisfying pre-existing sponsorship deals that might otherwise have been lost, according to the commissioner.
As a result, it’s dangerous to conclude that it’s a step towards placing ads on sweaters. That’s already common practice in the NBA, but isn’t on the horizon for the NHL.
“The jury is still out on jersey signage and if we are going to do that, that was something that is important enough on a whole host of ways that I didn’t want to do it under these [circumstances] and ask the clubs to do it, and approve it, because it’s ultimately subject to their approval under these circumstances,” said Bettman. “So nobody should jump to any conclusions about what it all means in terms of what’s next.”
There won’t be a big rush towards getting players and NHL staff vaccinated. They’ll join the queue with everyone else, according to Bettman.
“I saw some commentary about this, there was never any thought about us jumping the line or anything like that,” he said. “Like with PPE and like with testing, if there’s an alternate source that we could at the appropriate time buy and use that would be one thing, but that’s not the case and it would be silly for anyone to suggest that we have any notion that we could or would.”
As a result, the NHL doesn’t expect a meaningful amount of its people to receive the vaccine during the 2020-21 season. That’s somewhere off in the distance yet.
“I don’t think the issue is a ‘this season’ issue,” said Daly. “I hope it’s a ‘this year’ issue.”
So, given everything swirling around, what constitutes a successful season?
Florida, Arizona and Dallas are the only teams that will operate with fans from the get-go, with Columbus and Pittsburgh hoping soon to join them. There is much less money to be made. And more risks being taken by everyone involved.
“What’s aspirational is we get through the season, we have an on-ice terrific season, great playoffs, we present the Stanley Cup and the world is back to normal for the ‘21-’22 season,” said Bettman. “Anything beyond that would be great.”
Stay safe out there.